Starling Marte has been humbled by his 80 day suspension for violating MLB’s substance abuse policy. When he returns on July 18th, where will he slot into the lineup?
Starling Marte has been working through a rehab assignment first with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ High-A affiliate the Bradenton Marauders and now with the AAA Indianapolis Indians. He seems to have not missed a beat, going 5 for 18 with a home run and 2 stolen bases in 5 games with the latter club. He is determined to show that he is every bit the player he was before his suspension.
Return to Left Field
Clint Hurdle has already announced that Marte will be taking over left field duties when he is back in the lineup. Hurdle absolutely does not want to disrupt Andrew McCutchen in center field, who has managed to channel his former MVP self in the last month. Also, there were some hints from Marte himself that one of the reasons he slipped up and used a banned substance was that he felt the pressure of taking over such an important position. For now, left field is the right place – the comfortable place – for Marte to make his return.
Where he left off
Marte’s 2017 stat line before his suspension was not exciting. He was slashing .241/.288/.370 with 2 home runs and 2 stolen bases. He was getting fooled at the plate quite often as evidenced by his 17 strikeouts against only 3 walks. This was after a career year in 2016 where he hit .311/.361/.456 with 47 bags swiped. One possible explanation for his slow start in 2017 is that he reportedly knew about his impending suspension well ahead of the formal announcement, having had an advance discussion with the MLB front office. This had to weigh heavily on him as he continued to play. It shows in his performance over the last 6 games before his suspension where he went 2 for 24 with a plethora of strikeouts.
Easing Back into the Lineup
Marte is a gifted athlete and a natural 3 or 4 hitter. He will undoubtedly return to that form at some point. The interesting question is what will Clint hurdle do with him while he is rounding back into form. Hurdle will want to make the transition back to MLB caliber pitching as easy as possible for Marte. He will also want to get the left fielder lower pressure at-bats where he will see predominantly fast balls. This is the recipe for a number 6 or 7 hitter.
In this position, Marte will likely bat after David Freese and Gregory Polanco. He gets the benefit of hitting after two big power bats (at least in principle) who are just as likely to strikeout as hit for extra bases. Either way, the base runners will be fewer and the pressure will be lower than hitting in the 2 or 3 hole. Josh Bell will probably have to move to 2 hole into Adam Frazier’s spot when Frazier is not in the game. Frazier is having a rough time at the plate lately so a return to utility duties may be just what the doctor ordered.
Hurdle will want to make the transition back to MLB caliber pitching as easy as possible for Marte.
Jordy Mercer is doing a fantastic job as the 8th hitter so Hurdle won’t want to mess with that. Cervelli will probably stay in the 7th spot until he proves a little more durability. Less at-bats for Cervelli these days is not necessarily a bad thing.
Starling Marte’s job as the 6th hitter will be to get his MLB legs back and shake off the rust. He should play the field before he bats in most games, allowing him to get in the flow of the game on defense versus at the plate. Just like with McCutchen, the 6 spot allows Marte to see more strikes and hit with less pressure on him.
If he shows that he can put the ball in play and not strike out an inordinate amount of times, Marte could easily move up to the 2 spot after a handful of games. This would allow Marte to get more at-bats and use his speed more often. It also allows the Pirates to bat Bell 4th or 5th, taking advantage of his home run hitting potential.
No one knows what to expect from Marte as he returns to action and it is best to keep expectations low. The Pirates are probably not headed to the post season this year, so the imperative has to be rebuilding Marte’s game, both physically and mentally. Marte’s goals for himself are probably more near term – “See the ball. Hit the ball”. Here’s hoping he has learned his lesson and immediately starts contributing to the Pittsburgh Pirates.